The Eurovision Song Contest Goes Baltic

Forget The Osbournes, The Bachelor, even The Weakest Link. There's nothing on American television quite like the Eurovision Song Contest, the annual continent-wide live battle of the bands that is frequently mocked but never, ever ignored. This year's edition, held on May 24, had its fair share of priceless moments. There was Sestre, a trio of Slovenian drag queens (one is a “student of agronomy” and another was second runner-up in the European Miss Transvestite pageant in 1977) dressed as airline attendants. There was the Austrian contestant, improbably named Manuel Ortega, who, at 22, is a veteran of two boy bands, Spaff and Whatz Up. The Swedish entry was a trio of black females, Afro-Dite, who were billed in their publicity as “cheerful and charming.” Emerging in triumph from the conflict was Marie N, the Latvian entry (her résumé includes a stint as a backup singer for Joe Cocker and an appearance in a musical version of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie), with a number titled “I Wanna.”

The Latvian triumph was only appropriate; you could say that this was the year of the Baltic States at Eurovision. That's because the broadcast was held in Tallinn, Estonia, in Saku Suurhall, a multipurpose sports and entertainment venue that seats up to 10,000. It was a smaller venue than Parken, in Copenhagen, which hosted Eurovision 2001, and had room for 38,000. Still, it was a considerable achievement that Estonia hosted Eurovision at all. Shortly after winning last year's contest, the country announced that it might not be able to afford the expense of the contest; somehow, the money was found and the show, as it must, went on.

And what a show — this year's broadcast featured typically spectacular lighting design, in this case by Per Sundin of Swedish TV, with lots of strong color and angle choices deployed to create an exciting showcase for each competing act. But this year's lighting design had something extra, in the torrent of graphic work provided by the use of High End Systems' Catalyst, the system that turns a video projector into a moving light. This is hardly the first use of the product, which has been available all year long. But with 15 of them in use, this was the most extensive rig of them to date — in fact, Eurovision amounts to the Catalyst's big debut.

Both Sundin and Ola Melzig, technical coordinator for Spectra+, the Swedish company that supplied the lighting for Eurovision, say that they were a little apprehensive about taking a chance on a new and relatively untried product. (“There were a lot of question marks about the Catalyst,” says Melzig, bluntly.) Then again, the set, designed by Iir Hermelin, which featured seven reconfigurable fiberglass sails and a silver and white deck, provided a perfect canvas for the animated pattern work that is the Catalyst's signature. After viewing a QuickTime movie of the unit in operation, Sundin and Melzig traveled to London where High End and Barco put on a demonstration and provided convincing evidence that the Catalyst was the right product for the job.

Ultimately 15 Catalysts were used in the broadcast; Sundin focused them on the sails and the deck to provide a constantly shifting environment that made each performer stand out onstage and also provided plenty of visual excitement to accompany each hard-driving pop tune. While the automated lights did their stuff, providing color, movement, and flash, the Catalysts created unique, constantly moving backgrounds. The Cyprus act, One, performed in a vertiginously shifting black-and-white checkerboard pattern. The United Kingdom entry, Jessica Garlick, was seen in front of a background of cascading yellow squares that somehow resembled fireworks. Manuel Ortega was backed by pulsing, multicolored concentric circles. Lithuania's number (performed by Aivaras) featured a series of morphing, multicolored boxes that looked like confetti. Most of the patterns had a kicky, 1960s Op Art look that perfectly matched the ultra-pop quality of the Eurovision acts.

The Catalysts come with patterns programmed into them, and Sundin says that occasionally he used them: “For Belgium's act, we used white flames,” he says, by way of example. However, Melzig adds, “We got the opportunity to use specially-made graphics for the songs. We made a network with the 15 computers for the Catalysts, so basically when you entered the graphic into one computer, you did it to all of them. It's very easy to import graphics into it — it's basically plug and play.”

Sundin, who notes that the graphics were created using Adobe Aftereffect software, cautions, “The problem is that it takes some time to download new graphics, so it's not so easy to make changes.” This made for complications later on, when the performers showed up: “Because the set was made of light, everyone thought they could change everything. There are 24 countries with 24 songs and 24 delegations — and everyone has opinions about how their songs look and why are all the other songs better. They all wanted changes. But it takes a long time to make the graphics and download them into the projectors.”

Melzig adds, “We wanted to use the Barco G12 projector because we thought we needed that much brightness, but we went with the NEC XL 8000 projectors.” The Barcos, he says, “were close to double the weight and twice the size. We were six and a half tons overloaded on the weight of the rig — we had to put up a lot of spread beams and crosses — so we had to go with smaller projectors. They worked quite nicely with the gear we used. I will say the Catalyst was the part of the DMX system that gave us the least trouble. We were expecting many more software problems.”

The rest of the rig included 85 Studio Due Live Pro units, 85 Martin Professional MAC 600s, 22 High End Systems x.Spots, and 36 High End Cyberlights®. Each type of unit had a separate role to play. “We used the MACs because their color temperature is very well adapted for television,” says Melzig. The Cyberlights were used for audience lighting, an important function, as the broadcast made frequent use of audience shots. The Studio Due units, he says, were chosen to create well-defined beams in the onstage fog. Finally, Melzig says, “Per said, ‘I don't care what you give me as long as I get the x.Spots. I need a really good projection tool for the back wall. If we only use the Catalysts, it will be boring.” Like the Catalyst, the x.Spot is a relatively new product: “We didn't really know what to expect from them, if they would be able to function 12-14 hours a day for three weeks, or if there would be major meltdowns. They were in a very shitty environment — with cracked-oil diffusion and confetti.” Overall, he says, the entire rig functioned well: “We had two to four fixtures per day that refused to work, but we just exchanged them with spares. We didn't have one single problem with the Cyberlights in three weeks.”

Sundin and Melzig received the competing songs about six weeks before the event; Sundin then began designing in the Spectra+ studio in Stockholm, using the latest edition of WYSIWYG. “I think we were the first ones downloading the new version from Cast Software,” says Melzig. “We were really relying on WYSIWYG Perform, because you can use transparent layers of light,” an important function in designing for the multilayered set. Sundin also quickly realized that the fiberglass sails didn't look right when they weren't under direct light: “We couldn't get black,” he says. “We had to light every surface, or we had dead surfaces. That's why we had so much color.”

Overall, he says, “My main goal was to give all the songs unique looks. Every song got its own graphic style — it's a lot easier to do that with projections. Also, the challenge was to get the set to be alive and sparkling and so on. The other lights were something that supported the video.”

Control for the broadcast was provided by three Avab Pronto consoles, a fairly standard choice for a Swedish company, but, Melzig adds, “Avab sponsored the complete front of house, with monitors and everything, and supplied us with Ethernet links from the front of house to the stage.” There were other benefactors, too: “The production got 80% of its bulbs from Osram, which is really important — when you do a job this size, you really need new bulbs or you'll have problems with color temperature. Beacon, the gobo manufacturer, supplied us with 100 specially made gobos. We got a great deal of help from High End as well.”

Most of the equipment for Eurovision was supplied by Spectra AB. Others involved were Eventech, an Estonian supplier, which provided all gear for the green room, press center, and after-party; additional Catalyst support came from AV Lang and Video Unlimited. Programmers on the project were Bullen Lagerbielke, Sören Durango, and Emma Landare.

This year's broadcast was seen by 166 million people, many of whom avidly voted for their favorite act. As of this writing, Latvia appears to be next year's destination, although the country's prime minister has said that he prefers private funding over government support for the event. Meanwhile, it has been noticed that several low-scoring countries, including Finland, Denmark, and Lithuania, are Scandinavian, causing widespread disgruntlement (most of them will be out of the running for next year, due to their poor performances). As one press release sadly put it: “The Finns: We Have No Friends in Europe.” There's even talk that Finland, Sweden, and Norway are planning to organize their own Eurovision Song Contest. Somehow I doubt it will happen; look for all eyes to be on Riga, Latvia, next May.

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Lighting Designer
Per Sundin

Bullen Lagerbielke

Sören Durango, Emma Landare

Crew Chief
Tobias Åberg

Video Coordinator
Vello Herrmann

Local Production
Aleksander Kartul/Eventech

Head Rigger
Oz Marsh

Lasse Jerdermark

Head of DMX
Timo Kauristo, Emma Westerberg

Head of Dimmers
Peter Pihlblad, Tobias Berg

Fog Operator
Dan Persson

Chainmaster Variospeed Operators
Ole Sparboom, Henrik Rydell

Service Crew
Tobias Österberg, Bebban Pihlblad

Anita Grunwald, Sandra Skoglund

Lighting Supplier
Spectra AB

Lighting Equipment

15 High End Systems Catalysts
4 Panasonic PT-D 9500M projectors
14 NEC XL 8000 projectors
2 Barco G10 projectors
85 Studio Due Live Pro 1200s
85 Martin Professional MAC 600s
22 High End Systems x.Spots
36 High End Systems Cyberlights
3 Avab Pronto control consoles with backups
72 JTE ACL bars
10 JTE 8-lights
33 JTE 2-lights
18 JTE floor cans
5 Arri 5kW fresnels
1 Avolites 72-way dimmer
4 Okero 24-way dimmers
Prolyte S-52 trussing
Eurotruss FD34 trussing
JTE pre-rigged trussing
60 Columbus McKinnon Lodestar 1-ton hoists
4 Columbus McKinnon Lodestar 500kg hoists
3 Columbus McKinnon Lodestar 227kg hoists
18 Chainmaster Variolift 250kg motors
2 Robert Juliat Aramis followspots
2 Robert Juliat Korrigan followspots
4 Robert Juliat Foxie followspots
4 Reel EFX DF-50 Diffusion hazers
2 High End Systems F-100 foggers
1 Zero 88 Sirius 24-channel desk
JEM DMX fans